By Lawrence Messina
West Virginia won limited freedom Monday from the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, gaining approval of its own method for identifying struggling schools and then devoting resources to improve them.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was joined by state education officials and representatives of teacher organizations to herald the waiver. Alaska and Hawaii also qualified for exemptions, the U.S. Department of Education announced Monday, increasing to 37 the ranks of states allowed to ignore parts of the sweeping federal law.
“This means the federally mandated, one-size-fits-all approach to academic success will no longer hinder our schools’ performance and our students’ achievement,” Tomblin, a Democrat, said during a Capitol press conference.
No Child Left Behind, signed into law by President George W. Bush more than a decade ago, aims to require that all children perform at grade level in both math and reading by 2014. It places great focus on standardized test scores to measure whether schools are approaching that goal, or meeting Adequate Yearly Progress goals.
Starting this month, West Virginia will evaluate public schools by classroom and school-wide test scores as well as by factors such as attendance and graduation rates. The state-developed system will place each school in one of five categories, with a success ranking at the top and a priority ranking requiring the most improvement and resources.
State Schools Superintendent Jim Phares said his department has already identified 32 low-performing schools in the priority category. West Virginia has just over 700 schools, with more than half at the elementary grade level, according to department figures.
State Board of Education President Wade Linger said the waiver complements measures passed during the recently completed legislative session, including Tomblin’s agenda centerpiece aimed at improving student performance. The governor has set several education goals, including that all third-graders finish that year reading at grade level and high school seniors graduate without needing remedial college coursework.
The waiver application “showed the United States Department of Education that our state is ready to work collaboratively on one goal: improving student achievement,” Linger said. He added later, “I believe we are on our way to developing a system that will be the envy of the entire country if not the world.”
Tomblin’s education overhaul and other legislation introduced in the session responded to an audit that contrasted West Virginia’s multibillion-dollar spending on public schools with some of the lowest education rankings among states. The state department applied for the waiver in September under then-state Superintendent Jorea Marple, who was abruptly fired later that year amid calls by state board members for a new direction for that department.
Linger said the waiver, like initiatives pursued by Tomblin and the state board, supports shifting decision-making to the local level. The education audit had described West Virginia’s school system as rigid with extremely detailed policies and state-level bureaucracy. Phares said the new evaluation system will also benefit parents.
“They will receive more accurate reports on how their students are doing, and the success of their child’s school,” Phares said.